Alberta’s job boom hurts security companies
By Vawn Himmelsbach
The job boom in Alberta isn’t making everyone happy. For employers, the labour pool is diminishing and it’s becoming harder to find qualified candidates. The security industry is no different, as Alberta companies struggle to attract and retain security personnel who are now in short supply.
By Vawn Himmelsbach
“With the way the market is, security is competing with Tim Hortons and
McDonald’s,” says Sean Bolli, manager of security and life safety with
Brookfield Properties Corp., which specializes in commercial high-rise
security. “In some places you just can’t get people.”
In Calgary, McDonald’s is offering workers $12 an hour (and even higher
in Fort McMurray, near the oil patch). “That’s comparable to what we’ve
been paying for our contract security,” he says.
In 1997, the average hourly rate was about $8 an hour; these days, it’s
around $14 an hour. The tough part, says Bolli, is attracting people to
security when they may have to work night shifts, weekends and
holidays, and hold much more responsibility than serving burgers and
fries — particularly in a post-9/11 world.
His goal is to maintain 16 in-house and four contract security
officers, but this has become difficult. Over the past year, he only
lost two in-house staff — both to go on to other departments within the
company — but on the contract side he’s had a turnover rate of almost
250 per cent.
“I haven’t hired anybody [in] 2006 from the contract side, and I
usually hire one or two people a year,” he says. And they’re often
unqualified for higher-level responsibilities, such as managing access
procedures, emergency response procedures and tenant communications.
Training for the job includes five 12-hour shifts. “If it doesn’t work
out, we’ve lost that time the supervisor and other staff spent training
this person, so it’s a vicious cycle in that it wears people down, it
causes morale to suffer at times,” says Bolli. “It’s hard to break out
of.” Odds are that most contract employees will quit within a week or
month after training.
This is not the contractor’s fault, he added, but rather the shifting
demographic of security officers. Contract security providers have a
diminishing labour pool, and the labour pool they do have is often
lacking in experience and long-term direction.
“In the early ’90s, we would put an ad in the paper for security
officers and we would have people lined up at the door at 8am,” says
Doug Durant, district manager for Calgary with G4S Security Services
(Canada) Ltd., which is a contract security provider for commercial
buildings, high-rise office towers, manufacturing facilities and
The company still has a steady flow of candidates who respond to ads,
but the selection and screening process has become much more arduous.
Of almost 1,800 resumes that came in last year, the company hired only
25 per cent. “It’s a process where our growth has been limited because
we cannot employ enough people,” he says. “It does transcend up into
higher levels of management also — in our industry, everybody’s
And it’s now competing with industries outside of contract security.
Retail and hospitality jobs that traditionally paid minimum wage are
now offering competitive wages, signing bonuses and retention bonuses.
Since the labour pool is diminishing, G4S is focusing on retaining the
people it already employs. “It’s a lot cheaper to keep a person than to
go through the entire recruitment, interview and screening process,”
says Durant. The company provides incentives such as spot awards and
recognition of employees for length of service. It also works with
customers to come up with bonus programs, where the customer
participates in the program. “Where those initiatives are in place we
see significantly stronger retention of the employee group compared to
other locations where there’s no program in place,” he says.
“Security companies are having a heck of a time not only retaining
security officers but just finding them,” says Roger Maslen, senior
partner with Shepp Johnman Inc., which provides consulting,
investigation and security management services. “For a branch manager
or district manager, it’s hard to find people ”“ you’ve got to try to
steal them from somebody else.”
During a large labour dispute in Alberta last fall, Maslen needed investigators and had to fly some in from Ontario.
While the pay for security officers is slowly increasing, some contract
security providers are stuck because they’ve signed three-year
contracts with customers to supply security officers.
“You can’t give your security officer a raise until your bill rate goes
up,” says Maslen. “Then they get stuck. They get real high turnover and
the performance of the security officer isn’t going to be as good.”
Companies that have their own in-house security officers are typically
better off, since they have the ability to provide salary increases,
bonuses and other incentives such as training.
Gina Arbeau, security manager for Cadillac Fairview’s Market Mall in
Calgary, relies mainly on in-house security officers, but hires
contract employees over the Christmas season or for special events.
Prior to this, she worked as an HR manager for a contract security
company. “I hired about 300 people in a year-and-a-half and 300 people
went out the door,” she says. “They weren’t necessarily the same
people, it’s just that it’s a revolving door, especially when it comes
to contract security.”
In-house security tends to be more stable because of the benefits, says
Arbeau, and a key component of that is training. The company offers
training in first aid, LEBA (Law Enforcement Bicycle Association) and
PPCT (Pressure Point Contact Training), as well as cooperative
policing. It’s also looking into terrorist training from the RCMP.
“This kind of training becomes a launching pad for them to get into
places like the RCMP, fire department, EMS, which is exactly what
happens,” she says.
During the hiring process, ads don’t help much because she gets resumes
from people who have some experience but little initiative. She usually
hires people who are referred, often from the police department, which
has a volunteer centre for people interested in getting into policing.
Just recently, the company offered a salary increase for retention
purposes. “This is the first time I’ve ever worked for a company that
gave their security officers bonuses for performance,” she says. The
company also has award recognition for outstanding work, called the
Smile Awards (ranging from $25 to “the sky’s the limit”).
On the IT security side, the picture is somewhat brighter, simply
because of the nature of information technology. Some of the work IBM
does for Alberta-based clients, for example, doesn’t have to be
performed physically in Alberta.
“We have a security operations centre in Toronto that supports clients
in Alberta,” says Richard Branston, general manager and business unit
executive for IBM security solutions at IBM Canada Ltd. “That allows us
to leverage that and not be impacted by significant cost increases in
the Alberta marketplace.”
Also, because of the company’s broad reach across Canada and around the
world, it’s able to hire people in different geographies and deploy
them to Alberta. “We’re working with some oil and gas firms [in
Alberta] and we’re using security expertise from Toronto and Eastern
Canada,” he says.
But even IBM has to pay attention to its retention strategy —
particularly in high market pressure areas like Alberta. This includes
providing education and training, a positive working environment, and
awards, bonuses and financial packages, as well as a strong research
and development approach, which tends to attract security
“Working for IBM gives them access to global assignments, so they get
hired in Alberta and two years later they’re working on a project in
Mainland China,” says Branston, “and a lot of companies can’t offer
that type of career development.”
For Alberta-based companies, it’s much more difficult. “Because we need
qualified, alert people that are willing to respond to things that
could be dangerous, it’s going to be tough [to find people],” said
Market Mall’s Arbeau. “I don’t know how long we can hold out before
we’re doing another retention incentive.”
Even Dairy Queen, which offers $11 an hour to dispense ice cream, is still looking.